The one real glimmer of light on the pitch-black horizon of the Middle East – consumed by the fires of Syria raging across the Levant, poisoned by the sectarian struggle within Islam between Sunni and Shia, and with every other Arab country shaken to its foundations by three years of long-overdue upheaval – is the possibility of rapprochement between the US and Iran.
It is not just that the alternative to a formula to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a war that could spread across the region. It is that an Iran with a stake in solving the problems of the Middle East, rather than incentives to destabilise it, could be transformative.
Re-socialising Iran into mainstream geopolitics would be every bit as historic for President Barack Obama as American rapprochement with China was under President Richard Nixon. It might even enable his administration, diplomatically consumed by the Middle East, to pay a bit more attention to China as part of its vaunted pivot to Asia.
Sceptics will rightly want proof that Iran is becoming, as one European diplomat puts it, “a player for peace”. Given Tehran’s record, it could hardly be otherwise. Memories are still vivid of how after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, radicals seized the US embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage; or how Iran’s Lebanese proxies, Hizbollah, blew up the American embassy in Beirut in 1983, driving western forces out of Lebanon after that October’s vast truck-bombings, which killed 241 US servicemen and 58 French paratroopers.
More recently, Iran has outmanoeuvred the US and its allies across the Middle East. For a while after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, it looked as though Iran was behaving like a frantic gambler arriving at the races and placing bets on every horse. Ten years on, and it is clear how well Tehran, particularly through the elite al-Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, played a long game; the US and Britain have departed and Iran can push the Shia Islamist government of Nouri al-Maliki – their erstwhile protégé – into backing one of his most loathed adversaries, Bashar al-Assad. In Syria itself, the intervention of the IRGC and Hizbollah, with funding from Tehran estimated by one Arab securocrat at $9bn, has been decisive in enabling the Assad regime to cling on, while the Party of God has secured its fief in Lebanon by tightening its grip on the levers of power.
Why would Iran want to end this ostensibly winning streak? Three reasons are paramount.
First, the Iranian economy is haemorrhaging because of sanctions which, unlike the blunt instrument that prostrated Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, are sharp and smart. Pressing ahead with a nuclear programme seen as a menace by world and regional powers, moreover, will ultimately lead to war. Meanwhile, Iran has a similar socioeconomic profile to the Arab spring countries, and knows the demands of its overwhelmingly young people are permanent and must be addressed.
Second, Iran, a Shia power in a region dominated by Sunni Arabs and Turkey, is alarmed by the tide of sectarianism roaring across the region – immeasurably harder to harness than the perennial jostle for primacy in the Gulf between the Iranians and the Saudis. That goes back to the time of the Shah. Now, the two theocracies, the Islamic Republic and the Wahhabi kingdom, have uncaged sectarian demons – above all in Syria – that are not going to confine their butchery to the Levant. Iraq suffers the carnage of al-Qaeda-style Sunni extremism every day, and it is now blowing back into Lebanon, as this week’s twin suicide-bombing of the Iranian embassy in Beirut attests. Iran’s foreign minister told the BBC this month that, “we need to come to understand that a sectarian divide on the Islamic world is a threat to all of us”.
The third and linked reason Iran is contemplating a change in behaviour is that it wants to be recognised as a legitimate regional power, cashing in its winnings while it is still ahead.
All this is hypothesis, however, until the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, in their third day of a second round of talks this month in Geneva, strike a deal with Iran. Even an interim accord will need a clear destination: a robust inspections regime for a curtailed nuclear programme in exchange for recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium – a badge of its status as a regional power.
After three decades of visceral mistrust, says one Iranian intellectual with deep experience of the west, “both sides have to get inside each other’s psychology”. Iran carries a long history of bruising encounters with the outside world. The country’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, and allies such as Mohammad Javad Zarif, his foreign minister, need to emerge from these talks able to hold their heads high at home. Tone and gestures count.
President Obama is going to have to stand up for any deal, or be bushwhacked in the US Congress, where Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, is mobilising his allies to scuttle any agreement. Mr Obama baulked at the last fence over Syria in the summer. But that was about getting into another war. This is about keeping America out of what could become the mother of all regional wars. The president’s job will be to ensure voters’ antipathy towards that outweighs their reflex hostility towards Iran.
In the no-holds-barred wrestle with Mr Netanyahu that will follow any Iran deal, Mr Obama should suggest the Israeli premier spends less time drawing red lines for America’s position on Iran and more time drawing green lines to delineate a viable Palestinian state. Its absence is a more present threat to Israel’s future than an Iran that does not have an atomic bomb – whereas Israel has a full nuclear arsenal.
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